Centenary of the Archdiocese of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe

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Saint Dmitri of Paris (Klepinin)

Young Dmitry Klepinine

Auteur inconnu — Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47615054


Dmitri Andreevich Klepinin was born April 14, 1904 in Pyatigorsk. Dimitri's Stations of the Cross, which will lead him to martyrdom in the Nazi camps, had begun at an early age. When he was only a few months old, he developed pneumonia so severe that his mother had to be told of the likelihood of a fatal outcome. At the critical moment, the family was called to the child's bedside. Taking the little blue fingers of her son in her hand, Sophia Alexandrovna traced the sign of the cross on him. After these farewells, there was an unexpected turn in the disease process: the little one slowly began to be reborn.

The illness left a deep mark on Dimitri, however, leaving him weak and sickly, still stunted compared to children his age. His childhood was spent under the sign of this early learning of suffering, in the awareness of his fragility and a certain disadvantage compared to others. He became withdrawn and withdraw into his inner world, but also, very early on, he had a particular sensitivity to the distress of the weak and the unfortunate. There will often be, among his friends, some of these children powerless to face life for lack of strength or know-how: managing to forget their handicap, they felt in his company fully happy and "normal". Dimitri had the same compassion for the animals which, in return, attached themselves to him spontaneously. In addition to this spontaneous compassion with regard to the weak, he very early on showed a keen sense of fairness. His precocious righteousness and greatness of soul struck all those close to him.

The family was Orthodox,but did not practice. "All loved God and men", in the words of Z. Hippius, cousin of the mother (Dimitri Merejkovski, her husband, was the godfather of little Dima). The parents were both good musicians and of a great culture. Sophia Alexandrovna regularly read the Gospels to her children, composed prayers for them. A few months before her death, she dedicated one to Dimitri, then aged seventeen: “Receive, O merciful Father, the prayers of your children. Visit them secretly and grant them long days of joy and health, and mutual affection. Bring heavenly dew to the products of the earth. Fill our dwellings with your peace and joy. Make us capable, Lord, of perfect love, unaware of all fear. Amen ”. We find the text of this prayer in the diary of young Dimitri for the year 1929 (February 11). She seems to have played an important role in his existence, devoted entirely to charity and compassion for all that lives.

Sophia Alexandrovna, a trained teacher, devoted a lot of time to her children, sharing with them the riches of her spiritual universe. In Odessa, where the family had moved soon after Dimitri was born, they had developed a new experimental educational system where children's creativity was stimulated. She herself taught catechism there, striving above all to transmit to young people the living spirit of Orthodoxy. She had been, in Odessa, one of the first justices of the peace, and was also engaged in charitable works in the poor districts of the city. This social action saved her life a few years later, when she was arrested by the Cheka in 1919, thanks to the testimony in her favor of a young Chekist who knew her for her work with the needy.

The arrest of his mother was the occasion, for Dimitri, of a first contact, rather unfortunate it is true, with the Church; shaken by the event, he had gone to the church of a nearby convent, but he was not used to taking part in services and remained standing in the midst of the faithful, holding his hands behind his back, which earned him a lively reprimand from a nun. “This clumsy criticism is enough to discourage his sensitive soul and keep him away from the path of the Church,” noted A.N. Hippius (ibid.).


When Odessa was occupied by the White Army, Dimitri enlisted as a sailor on one of its merchant ships. "The whole crew adored him", reports S.P. Jaba in his Memoirs.

He later reunited with his family in Constantinople, the first stage of their life in exile. Dimitri will resume his studies there at the American College. In 1921, the Klepinins reached Serbia, where they found the Zernov, Lopoukhine and Troyanov families. They all settled down together in a large house, baptized by them "The Ark", in the suburbs of Belgrade, which was to become the meeting place of the "Circle of Orthodox Students".This exceptional community, animated by an intense religious feeling, was open to all the philosophical, religious, social and cultural problems of the time. There reigned a spirit of brotherhood and militant charity which strengthened Dimitri in his faith. “Dima was quickly appreciated and found with these young people an authentic climate of spirituality to which his soul had obviously longed for a long time. Thus was made his true entry into the Church, this time definitive ”(A.N. Hippius, ibid.).

With the Orthodox Circle, Dimitri often went to the monastery of Hopovo, where he met Father Alexis Nelioubov, a remarkable pastor, and Bishop Benjamin (Fedtchenkov), whom he would visit regularly in his monastery thereafter.

The sudden death of his mother in February 1923 will strongly mark this critical period of his spiritual biography and bring Dimitri even closer to the Church. Even after her death, Sophia Alexandrovna will remain a guide for her son in the choices of his spiritual path. In September 1930, Dimitri spoke of this constant maternal presence in his spiritual direction in a letter to S. Chidlovskaya: “I understood for the first time the meaning of all suffering when I realized that everything on which I was basing my hopes in life was gone. [...] But one day I remembered these words of Christ, which filled me with joy: « Come to me, all you who toil under the weight of the burden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light (Mt 11:28) ». I had come to my mother's grave, bowing under the yoke of my trials; everything seemed confused and hopeless to me, and here I was discovering the light burden offered by our Lord. It was the happiest time of my life, and I thank God for these trials. I then organized my life into a new direction and I could now face more serenely the traps of adversity ”.

In his Diary, he continues to address his mother in tender terms: “As I reread your letters, I feel each time how much you participate in my existence. You are always with me. Your lucid love knew what fate had in store for me and what was going to be of use to me. You alone know, even now, what will be my path, of which I am unaware of myself. Help me, if it is permissible for you to walk with me the way that pleases the Lord. I am so happy that you knew all the love I had for you; that you knew that I loved you despite my blindness at the time and my lack of attention to you. I am going to bed now: stay present, as you were once, when I was on the Bosphorus, and again, in Yalta ... God willing, I will write to you again. Eternal memory to you ”(September 17, 1929).

Theological formation

In 1925, Dimitri enrolled at the Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, recently founded in Paris. His main teacher will now be Father Serge Bulgakov. Theodore Pianov reports in his Memoirs: “The Institute of Theology was for Father Dimitri his spiritual family. He was not a "theologian" in the true sense of the word. His spiritual affinities with Father Serge were nevertheless very strong. His personality, above all, was close to him, much more than the learned theologian. Like many Russian intellectuals, the latter had followed a difficult course which had finally brought him back from Marxism to Christianity. Dimitri was dazzled by Father Serge's stature and his creative genius. [...] Father Dimitri will have a particular veneration for the Mother of God, where he felt a certain influence of Father Serge. But he will extend this fervent tenderness for the Mother of Christ to our world, to the sufferings of men and to all living beings. Appeasing all suffering seemed to be his vocation’’.

Dimitri finished the Institute in 1929 and received a scholarship to complete his training at the New York Theological Seminary. There he studied the writings of Saint Paul, who remained very close to him all his life. He then went to Bratislava, Slovakia, to help Father Serge Tchetverikov, who became his spiritual father. In 1932, Dimitri visited his father in the Bor region (Yugoslavia). He sees his governess there again, to whom he was very attached in his childhood. From a Catholic family, she had been greatly impressed by Dimitri's spiritual progress in Orthodoxy. He had found her seriously ill and stayed with her for the last few days. She converted to Orthodoxy just before she died.

At the beginning of 1934, Dimitri returned to Paris, where he exercised various trades to earn a living, as a laborer, tile washer or floor polisher. At the same time, he participates with zeal in the Christian Action of Russian Students (ACER), mainly as cantor and choir director during the association's congresses and holiday camps. His spiritual quest eventually led him to consider the priesthood.

Metropolitan Eulogy, to whom he was very attached and whom he readily qualified as "starets", knew how to detect the deep vocations of his flock. During an evening dedicated to the memory of Father Dimitri, the Metropolitan will tell, with a touch of humor, how the Orthodox of Paris “had decided to help the shy young man to find a bride. And God, in his mercy, sent him a perfect companion in all respects ”. Dimitri met Tamara Fedorovna Baïmakova, secretary of ACER in Riga and correspondent of the review Vestnik, during an ACER congress. They married in 1937, in Colombelles, in Normandy. The same year, Dimitri will be ordained deacon, then priest, in the cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky, by Metropolitan Eulogy assisted by the bishop of Prague Mgr Serge (Korolev). He was first appointed third priest in the ACER church.

Father Dmitry Klepinine

Auteur inconnu — Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47615748

From October 1938 to autumn 1939, Father Dimitri officiated in Ozoir-la-Ferrière, then he was appointed rector of the church of the foyer founded by Mother Mary (Skobtsov), rue de Lourmel, in Paris. The Klepinin family settled there, with little Hélène, born shortly before. Soon Paul will be born, their second child.

The Ministry

Father Dimitri arrived rue de Lourmel on October 10, 1939, a few days before the parish feast. Father Serge Bulgakov, who celebrated from time to time at the foyer church, was delighted with the appointment of his former pupil. The parishioners very quickly discovered the infinite kindness of their new pastor, his gentleness and his readiness to come to the aid of everyone. But when it came to defending the truth of Christ, he knew how to be inflexible. His understanding with Mother Mary was immediate, despite their difference in age and character. They worked together in perfect intelligence for the "Orthodox Action", following a common ideal which would lead them both to martyrdom.

One of their activities was visiting mental hospitals, looking for Russians forgotten by all or who were there by mistake. A woman relates how Father Dimitri saved her from depression: “He undertook to heal me himself, his therapy consisting in diverting me from my misfortune by telling me about the misfortune of others and the need to come to their aid. He took me to hospitals and orphanages, giving me abandoned children. Thanks to him, I stopped concentrating on myself and gradually regained my balance ”.

In her Memoirs, Sophia Pilenko, Mother Mary's mother recounts: “In recent years, great peace reigned in our parish. At the height of the war, in the midst of all the horrors, one felt there an intense spirituality, the love of neighbor, the constant concern to help the most unfortunate. Father Dimitri had many spiritual children whom he tried to comfort in their trials. Although sickly and often weak, he never refused his services, going to meet any request or request for services. He sometimes provided two or three burials a day, in distant cemeteries and in all weathers. Most of the time, they were destitute. As soon as he got home, to get something to eat, a deceased person was brought in again, and he left ... ” Burials were particularly numerous in Lourmel because the church was easily accessible for funeral wagons. Mother Mary had hung a large canvas there, with angels embroidered in the corners, on which she embroidered the names of all the deceased. To add to the splendour of the Services, she also embroidered the priestly garments of Father Dimitri for each feast. Constantin Motchoulski describes the 1940 Easter service as follows: “Mother Mary had sewn for Father Dimitri a paschal garment of white silk without any ornament, except, finely embroidered with red silk on the chasuble, the monogram“ Jesus Christ ”. - Alpha and

Omega ”. The city was plunged into darkness. The sirens howled in the night. The paschal procession, carrying banners and icons, crossed the courtyard and stopped in front of the foyer. Father Dimitri knocked three times on the door: the doors opened, and an ocean of light filled the darkness. [...] Father Dimitri seemed to fly among the faithful, lifting his light white silk garment at each step, like wings. He cried out his joy in Christ in a loud, triumphant voice full of joy: "Christ is risen!" The crowd moved away as he passed, causing the little Easter flames to stir, and a joyous clamor sounded like a cascade: "In truth, He is risen!" But there he is already in front of the altar, where he pronounces a little litany before rushing back into the crowd, sparkling with whiteness, transported, resplendent among the flowers. He reminded me of the angel who rolled the stone in front of the tomb of the Lord ... Mother Mary was standing near the altar, her face lit by the candles: her eyes were filled with tears of joy. [...] All received Communion during the liturgy. Father Dimitri solemnly read the Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was turned towards God, and the Word was God". Beyond the thin walls of the small church fitted out in a former garage, the darkness of the war and the terrible spring of 1940 thickened, while inside, in a heavenly clarity, the eternal words resounded: « And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not grasped it. »

It was the last Easter before the occupation of Paris, soon followed by the tragic days of May and June 1940. Russians were arrested and sent to the Compiègne transit camp, north of Paris. At Rue de Lourmel, a “Compiègne Prisoner Assistance Committee” was organized, which sent food parcels to prisoners. Father Dimitri regularly celebrated intercessory offices for the salvation of Russia.

Then began the persecution of the Jews. When it intensified in 1942, it turned out that baptismal certificates could play a decisive role, serving as a sort of "safe-conduct". Father Dimitri did not hesitate to deliver them widely. He soon had nearly eighty new "parishioners" in his files. Most needed the certificate to escape persecution, but some really wanted to convert and Father Dimitri then made them follow the customary preparation. An incident gave all the measure of his determination and his courage: the Orthodox diocesan authorities having asked him for the list of people baptized since 1940, he replied: "All those who have asked me for baptism have done so independently of any foreign motivation and became my spiritual children. They are now under my protection. Your approach is obviously due to external pressure from the police. Consequently, I am forced to reject your request ” (document cited by G. Raevsky: “ Vingt ans après ”, La Pensée Russe, Paris, August 1, 1961).

The situation became critical. Hiding places had to be found urgently, in the first place for the wives and children of the Jews who had already been arrested. The foyer in the rue de Lourmel thus became a refuge where we managed to hide many people, even in the chapel. Father Dimitri gave up his room to a whole family. “All these unfortunate people are my spiritual children,” he repeated. The Church has always been a refuge for the victims of barbarism! "

The martyr

On February 8, 1943, the Gestapo raided rue de Lourmel. During the search, a note from a Jewish woman to whom Yuri was carrying food parcels was found in Yuri Skobtsov's pocket. She begged Father Dimitri to provide her with a baptismal certificate. The Gestapo seized the papers of Fr. Dimitri and of S.V. Medvedeva, ordering them to report to their offices the next day. They took the young Yuri hostage, declaring that he would be released when his mother, absent that day, presented herself in turn.

Aware of what such a summons could mean, Father Dimitri celebrated a liturgy at dawn. It will be the last, for him, in freedom. On this farewell morning, the Eucharist was celebrated in the annex chapel, which Father Dimitri had set up himself, where he particularly liked to officiate. He had dedicated "his little church" to the holy martyr Phillip, Metropolitan of Moscow, who had undergone torture at the orders Ivan the Terrible for having dared to reproach his cruelty. Right after the Liturgy, he went to the headquarters of the Gestapo togerher with S. Medvedeva. A German officer by the name of Hoffmann had accumulated a great deal of evidence concerning the aid given to the Jews by Mother Mary and Father Dimitri. He was about to question the priest at length. He was surprised when Father Dimitri told him frankly everything he had done. "You are helping the Youpins," shouted Hoffmann to him. Father Dimitri corrected him: “I help the Jews”. Hoffmann then said to him: "If we let you go, do you promise not to help the Jews anymore?" Father Dimitri replied: “I cannot promise you this; I am a Christian and I must act as such ”. Hoffmann, incredulous, hit Father Dimitri in the face and shouted: "How dare you say that helping these pigs is a Christian duty!" Father Dimitri, regaining his balance and showing his pectoral cross, said softly to him: "And this Jew, do you know him? » He struck him again and threw him to the ground. The interrogation of Father Dimitri lasted four hours. Finally, Hoffmann had Father Dimitri brought back to Avenue Lourmel, in order to arrest Mother Mary in turn, and to conclude the investigation. "Your pope has condemned himself", said Hoffmann, returning to Lourmel.

Father Dimitri bade farewell to his wife and children. Among his last words, he recommended his wife to watch over an elderly person who lived on the sixth floor of a neighboring building, without an elevator. It was only later that Tamara learned why Father Dimitri had spent so much time with this old woman. He had chopped wood for her, lit her fire, brought her food, and prepared it.

As soon as he returned, Mother Mary presented herself to the Gestapo, but Yuri was not released. He was not released either when, a few days later, Theodore Pianov also went there and was also arrested. Y. P. Kazatchkine and A.A. Viskovski, who worked in the kitchen of the hostel, suffered the same fate. When the latter was arrested, Tamara Klepinin dared to protest, saying that he was ill (he was one of the unfortunate people pulled from psychiatric hell by Mother Mary and Father Dimitri). "We'll put his brains right back over there!" », Retorted the SS ... The Gestapo becoming more and more threatening, Tamara Klepinin went to take shelter in the vicinity of Paris with the two children.

The Orthodox Action was banned and all its members, after a month of detention in Romainville, directed to the Compiègne camp. Theodore Pianov relates: “We were parked (nearly four hundred people) in the courtyard. The girls in make-up who were charged to write down in stenography the proceedings, German, French and Russian, stared at us. They made fun of Father Dimitri whose cassock was all torn. One of the SS began to push and hit our priest, calling him "The Jew!" Yuri Skobtsov, by his side, was crying. Father Dimitri consoled him, saying that Christ had suffered much worse insults ”.

For the first few days, they suffered from hunger, as their relatives could not yet send them any parcels. The detainees searched the trash cans to find food ... Survivors reported that Father Dimitri never ceased to worry about not being able to relieve the despair of his companions. One day when he was offered an onion, he hastened to give it to a Serbian student (the Serbs were particularly badly off). "He gave his onion and was very happy with it, but we, much less: we hoped to put it in the soup with some potato peelings!" ”(Th. Pianov, ibid.). When they were finally able to receive parcels, Father Dimitri went to see all these unfortunate people and distributed everything he had. His friends blamed him for it, but he always replied jokingly. "Few are the examples of such responses to evil in tragic situations," continues Pianov. In this, Father Dimitri resembled Mother Mary. For him, there was no dilemma: there was only to follow the precepts of Christ. At a discussion which one day started on this theme, Father Dimitri had said: "If I had not become a priest, if I had not had the opportunity to do what I do, I would have been the most unhappy of men! By setting me on this path, God saved me. I'm sorry, in fact, for doing so little. Here, for example, where we are all detained, it would seem that there is nothing to be done. And yet, I could have done more, but I indulge in laziness ... ”.

At the initiative of Father Dimitri, a chapel was set up in the barracks. The iconostasis was made with tables and benches overturned against the bunks. Tamara Klepinin succeeded in transmitting to her husband an anti-mension. “We celebrate the liturgy every day, and that changes everything!” , Father Dimitri wrote to his wife. We are studying Pratt's book. I work a little with Youri, who wants to prepare for the priesthood ”.

The prisoners of the Compiègne camp were the last parishioners of the Father. “Our liturgical Services, and especially the Divine Liturgy, were the very center of Father Dimitri's life. He often told us that he was completely distraught when he could not celebrate, that he no longer had the strength, then, to fight against himself, against his ego and all the evil that surrounds us. Without any pressure on his part, by his example alone and a few edifying explanations, he had brought us all closer to the Holy Mysteries. When we were not dislodged from our cell (which happened quite often), we celebrated the liturgy and the evening service every day. Father Dimitri encouraged us to go to confession and to take Communion often, and these sacraments brought us great comfort. He regretted not being able to come to the aid of the young Soviets detained in Compiègne (most of them escaped from different Nazi camps). They often came to meet us in the refectory, but remained indifferent to the Church and our prayer meetings. A little later, however, Father Dimitri's attempts in this direction were crowned with success. [...] In difficult times, he read zealously the Gospel and the Bible, or the book of Pratt. Suffering from insomnia, he would sit under the lamp, at a corner of the table where the inmates played cards all night long, and read, then share his readings with us. As soon as we arrived in Compiègne, at the request of a few, he organized a group to study the Bible, the offices and the life of Jesus ”(Th. Pianov, ibid.).

In Paris, the friends of Father Dimitri were struggling to get him released. A German pastor, friend of the Orthodox and quite influential with the Nazi authorities, promised to intercede on his behalf, on condition, however, that he agreed to declare that he had no other activity at the home of Mother Mary than the exercise of worship. Tamara Klepinin managed to inform her husband about it thanks to an underground network organized in the American sector of the camp, which is more autonomous. Father Dimitri declined this offer, specifying: “In your efforts, you must not deny my participation in the Orthodox Action. This would only aggravate the accusations made against it. In any case, we will remain responsible, although we have committed no crime ”(letters of May 19 and June 2, 1943).

In December 1943, the prisoners were transferred to Buchenwald, then to the sinister “Dora Tunnel”, where underground factories were dug for the fabricatin of V2 rockets. Despite his poor physical condition, Father Dimitri continued to console all those who were losing heart. Refusing to take advantage of the few privileges to which his status as a French gave right, he tore off the "F" sewn on his clothing, replacing it with the mark of Soviet prisoners - in order to be able to share the harsher fate imposed on his compatriots. Worried about his awful expression and seeing him visibly wasting away, one of the prisoners responsible for the division of labor wanted to intercede on his behalf, trying to convince their boss that the work was too hard for the "old man." The chief having asked him his age, Father Dimitri answered without lying: “39 years! », And had to carry on carrying much too heavy slabs. "Father Dimitri was incapable of lying," S. Jaba will confirm in his Memoirs. So his death was inevitable, as had been his arrest. "

During an endless roll-call in an icy wind, Father Dimitri caught cold and had pleurisy. Youri Kazatchkin succeeded in having him transferred to the barracks for patients exempted from work. A few days later, visiting him, he found him dying, on the verge of despair. On February 8, 1944, "day of correspondence", Kazatchkin brought him a postcard. No longer able to speak, Father Dimitri made him understand that he would also be unable to write. The next day, February 9, when Kazatchkin returned, he was no longer there.

The guard of the barracks, who witnessed his last moments, will say that he had found him on the cement floor, unable to move. Father Dimitri had succeeded, however, in asking him to raise his hand to help him sign himself. Thus his life ended as it had begun, under the sign of the all-powerful Cross: the Cross, fully assumed, which was the choice and the meaning of his entire existence.

“He always insisted on the Lord's Way of the Cross. And man hhimself was for him a symbol of the Cross. He knew the strength of the Cross. He had a keen sense of the evil pervaded all over the world, but at the same time a deep conviction that the almighty Cross would succeed in saving man and the whole world ”(Th. Pianov, ibid.).

In 1930, meditating on his ordination, Dimitri Klepinin wrote in his Journal: “The Christian path, is it joy or suffering? The answer has to be : suffering, because in order to follow Christ, it is necessary that the earthly body dies. But joy will conquer this death, because in it we are reborn in Christ and and participate in the work which is most holy of all, the edification of the « Body of Christ », the mystery of the triumphant life which leads us to the inexpressible Light, where God is all in all. »

Interview with Dimitri Klépinine's daughter in 2006 (in French)